Why You Should Not Immediately Dismiss Unpaid Internships

Here’s the predicament— you cannot find a decent job because you lack experience, and you cannot get experience because you cannot find a relevant position. That was my story (before I started graduate school), and I did not do an internship while in college (not sure why). I never really considered an unpaid internship (or basically volunteering), but if I had, I would have gained the experience I needed. In my case, I winded up going to grad school partly because I couldn’t find a permanent job in my field. But if I had taken an unpaid internship, I would have gained the experience to maybe land a job — it’s an investment in time (for no pay) that may really benefit you in the long run.

I have created a company that is just launching called LivestockCity. We do not currently have any investor funding for this company, and I am self-funding it. It is an exciting venture because it is a startup, one of many technical companies that will launch this year. It has also been a long journey for us thus far. We have used countless freelancers and have made a ton of mistakes that we will not make again. Needless to say, building a startup requires a great deal or effort, and Murphy’s Law applies. Despite it seeming like an “in” thing to do, trying to create a business from scratch is a lot of work. Going alone is almost a recipe for failure. I have a co-founder (but it’s complicated), and with little financial resources, I had to find a way to build this company. Bootstrapping is one way we have done it. Another way is getting help from highly intelligent talented people that lack the proven experience. This creates a nice symbiotic relationship between the company and the interns where everybody wins.

Not All Internships Are Created Equally

There are good internships and bad internships, we can all agree. Good internships pay, while bad internships don’t, right? Wrong! Okay I will concede that a perfect internship would pay high and give you the perfect project to land you a job at Google or somewhere else. Or maybe an internship at Google is a great “in” there (good luck getting an internship there by the way). But the “perfect” internship probably isn’t all that common in my opinion. In some cases you’re going to be working under some disgruntled employee, and you will be his/her “grunt”, doing the things they don’t want to do. Or you will do more minor projects and not be around areas that the company wouldn’t want an intern to mess up. You will have supervision and be told what and how to do it. In the end you will have definitely gained some experience, perhaps even land a job at that company. If not, at a minimum you made some money and have something to add to your resume. Will it make you stand out in a competitive applicant pool? Who knows. Maybe it will, maybe not.

LivestockCity Internships

How do our internships work? LivestockCity internships can be challenging, fun, and are designed to give the interns meaningful experience. There is a lot of freedom with minimal hand holding, and we often tell the interns it is much like being thrown into the ocean — it is pretty much sink or swim. Those that cannot hack it naturally quit on their own. But for those that stick it out, they learn a lot. They learn much more than just building upon what they already know. For example, they witness the issues startups must overcome, being punched in the face repeatedly by whatever setback is currently being dealt with. Where there is no pay, we make up for with awesome projects. Plus they learn from all my mistakes. I point out the things I did wrong and right, and they learn the lesson too. Here are some examples:

  1. Growth Hacker Intern — responsible for using social media sites to build an audience, with minimum supervision. The goal is for them to learn how do to it and make it happen. Will this look great on a resume? Yes!!
  2. Advertising/Marketing Strategy/Business Intern — responsible for finding ways to make, research, organize with growth hacker, etc. We had an intern in this position that later co-founded a company and also landed a related position with another company. Did we play in a part in all of that? You bet we did!
  3. UX/UI Interns — responsible for redesigning the entire website from a UX/UI perspective and make it more user friendly. Required skills included Bootstrap, Javascript, jQuery, HTML5, CSS3, etc. Surveys were involved, team work with other interns was involved too. How do you think “redesigning a startup’s website from scratch using UX/UI techniques and Bootstrap” will look compared to “worked on such and such page of website?” There’s no comparison, actually, and just like other internships, these interns still could land jobs later with LivestockCity.
  4. Mobile App interns — we have no in-house expertise here, so again, it is a sink or swim situation. But, sometimes this is the best way to learn. Now if we need higher expertise to help interns, we will get it. But we like for them to try to figure it out first on their own. We are helping them learn more quickly and preparing them to land a job — this is what an internship should do. Again, an excellent opportunity to bolster the resume and land a job.

I highly applaud all my interns that looked past the “unpaid” part and saw a huge opportunity instead. They appreciate the fact that we are willing to recognize undeveloped talents and let them prove themselves by risking our own projects (and risk losing valuable time) in order to 1) Give them a chance to show what they can do 2) help them in their careers as they just start it or they change career direction. And it is going to pay off for the ones that stick with it. 3) We treat them more like colleagues and insiders than interns. I bet if you asked any of the current/past interns if they would this internship was worth not being paid, most would say “yes.” If you asked them how much learned, I know they would say they’ve learned more than they thought they ever would. I know this, because I ask them all this very question out of curiosity.

In addition to no pay, we also do not have requirements for physical presence where we operate (remote work is fine), we do not have weekly hour minimums, and we generally do not have minimum lengths of time commitments. Why not? 1) We do not have an office that we work out of (yet). 2) It is essentially volunteer work, so placing minimum hour requirements isn’t really applicable. However, 5 hours a week isn’t valuable to LivestockCity or the intern either. In that amount of time, little will be accomplished. Most will work between 10–20 hours/wk and some work even more. And that does not go unnoticed. 3) Currently we do not require time commitments (like 3 months, etc.) of any length because we don’t want to force someone to intern if they don’t like it, nor could we force them to anyway. So interns can come/go as they wish. That doesn’t mean that we will not end the internships ourselves. We have ended several when it didn’t seem like a fit or it wasn’t working out for whatever reason.

So You’re Saying Unpaid Internships Are Actually The Best Ones??

No, I am not saying to you should always take an unpaid internship, but you should not immediately dismiss it like so many do (If you can find a paid internship offering a quality project, then go for it). Especially with startups, as they grow, they will need to hire paid help eventually, and you could be getting in early as a top 10 employee from an unpaid internshiip. If there’s stock involved and that company ever has an IPO or some kind of exit, it could be a nice payoff. That scenario is a long shot, but you never know — it’s could happen. Many of our interns take our internship while also working somewhere else as well. That’s really smart. We are sort of their “side hustle”, and they can work elsewhere to handle financial needs.

So if you are presented with an unpaid internship opportunity, do not immediately delete it or move on, especially if they are doing something you find interesting. It doesn’t hurt to consider it and talk with the company to find out more. It might turn to be the best decision you’ve ever made.

Follow me on Twitter @ejameswhite1, ejameswhite on Instagram, or www.ejameswhite.com.

About Jim 85 Articles
Co-founder of LivestockCity and Eshtar. Marathon runner. Non-practicing molecular biologist ( I know way more than enough to be dangerous :) ). Front end developer and back end developer pretender (still learning to code). @ejameswhite1.

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